Tuesday 29 August 2017

Has Railway Reporting Hit The Buffers?

Actually it hit the buffers sometime ago, and has never recovered. You see, for decades now the Railways have been the butt of many a joke, and the target for unjust criticism. From the fabled curled rather than cured BR ham sandwich, to the outrageous displacement of people because of HS2, to the tortuous conditions borne by commuters on a daily basis the railways are just as much a target for hysterical media reporting as is the weather, any DJ who dared pat a backside in the 1960's, and how many times Wayne Rooney sneezed at halftime. Or not, as the case maybe, but it has become even more ok to ignore facts and replace them with sensationalist headlines.

That would be ok if the media were even handed but they are not, on a grand scale. Let me give you an example. On Saturday, on the M1 near Milton Keynes, a collision between a minibus and two lorries resulted in the deaths of 8 people, a badly injured 5yo girl was left an orphan, and it soon transpired that one of the lorry drivers was over the drink drive limit. A real tragedy, and it deservedly made the headlines, but it didn't take over the rolling news, or have the papers wringing their hands in horror. Now imagine a different scenario with the same outcome. A train, driven by a driver who it transpires was over the drink drive limit, runs into the back of another train, killing 8 people and injuring several others. There would be reporters sent straight to the scene, providing live, rolling coverage. There would be helicopters, rail experts brought in to give instant answers to impossible questions with no facts at hand, and the whole safety of the railway, driver recruiting, braking systems etc etc would be brought into question, despite it being the safest form of travel there is, including walking! The papers would be full of "terrified passengers", and there would be calls for heads to roll nationwide. The train driver's family would have the paparazzi camped outside their houses, and their private lives investigated, and the driver would become a national hate figure.

Later this week the new Queensferry Crossing between Edinburgh and Fife will open with a festival of congratulations and back slapping. Yes it is a truly magnificent structure, and completes a unique trio of bridges to cross the Firth. It is also opening a year late. The reason given is that it was windy for a month. That seems have to have been largely forgotten. Why wasn't the weather factored into the contract. Then, if the weather wasn't bad and the bridge opened early it could be very well publicised. How can one month's bad weather cost a whole year? We'll never know.

Today, after 3 and a half weeks of round the clock work, Waterloo station re-opened all its platforms. A couple of hours late. At 0530 The Sun was screaming headlines about travel chaos, how the project was running late and that the world was effectively ending. They conveniently showed a pic of the concourse at Waterloo full of people, which also showed the famous clock - showing 0550! I'm told the radio stations were no better. As it happens there was little disruption, yes 4 platforms were a few hours late being handed back, but it had little impact on services. To give you some idea of what has been achieved at Waterloo, in all weathers, over the last 3 and a half weeks watch this video. It's quite something.

If you are on a bus, and you get delayed because of temporary lights who do you blame? The bus driver? The bus company? The Council? No one ever blames the utility actually digging up the road but certainly no one would blame the bus driver or the company. They have no control over the traffic do they? Now you're on a train and you are delayed due to cows on the line. Automatically everyone blames the operating company, when they have as much control over the infrastructure as bus companies do over the roads. So why does this injustice happen with the railways?

It's actually quite simple when you think about it. Sadly there are many, many people killed on the roads everyday. 8 in one go is newsworthy but it's not earth shattering to anyone except the poor families involved. Trains run late day in day out, we're all used to it so it's not really news on an individual basis. But anyone getting killed on the railway is so, so rare it IS headline news, it DOES make everyone stop and pay attention, so really in that respect the railway is a victim of its own success. If it was regarded as "just another death on the railways" that would be even more worrying.

This August unprecedented upgrade works have been taking place all ove the country, but with London especially affected. Not just Waterloo, but Charing Cross, Waterloo East, London Bridge, Euston and Liverpool St have also been shut. I certainly can't remember so many projects happening at the same time and that's good. The downside is if the line is up people can't travel, and that's when it becomes news, and facts get distorted. Suddenly operators who have been warning passengers for the last year are implementing "emergency timetables" and the network is grinding to a halt. Again it's the unknown factor. Waterloo has never seen anything like the work that's taken place in the last 4 weeks. That makes it news, and papers need to sell, and radio stations need listeners. Because the Waterloo project was publicised so much the vultures were queuing up waiting for it to overrun or fail. Considering they had a derailment during the works it's a stunning achievement to finish within a couple of hours of the target, but negative news sells better than positive news, so that's why The Sun made it all up. That's why saying rail operators had been warning passengers for a year was overlooked. I very much doubt The Sun's leader tomorrow will be "Waterloo Running Normally". It's why they don't bother telling anyone exactly what the works will achieve. If it ain't bad it ain't news.

Many more people are displaced by Compulsory Purchase Orders due to new roads/developments than are by new railways, but again because the former is s common and the latter so rare it makes the news.

The sensible rail media are used to this, and report things rationally and accurately, even if some of them are a little uneasy to criticise fearing they might lose contacts. I know how they feel - trying to be balanced when friends are involved is extraordinarily difficult. But you won't find any sensationalism within the rail media, who are by far the best guides to turn to for the facts. But even some of those I don't think have grasped the fact that if the railway wasn't as safe as it is incidents wouldn't be overblown due to their rarity, and the nation as a whole just isn't use to the amount of infrastructure work taking place as there is now. For decades we have complained of under investment. Now we're getting it, and that takes some getting used to, and tolerating.

My thanks and congratulations to all 80,000 engineers involved in the projects over the last month. We will still all complain about late trains, as we do about the weather, and temporary lights, and Wayne Rooney. But hopefully, in time, we'll realise and appreciate the stella points of the railway, even if the sheer success of them means when the exception to the rule happens, the coverage is disproportionate.


  1. We all mutter about the disparity in media coverage between rail and road but you make a very valid point re. the rarity of rail fatalities compared to road.
    I would like to add my congratulations to the "Orange Army" on all their work. Well done one and all. Also a special mention to Network Rail PR for their excellent videos of the Waterloo work.

  2. Actually bus companies do, and are, regularly blamed for delays caused by roadworks by customers, the press & even the Traffic Commissioners. It is not unknown for customers to blame the operator for not knowing about roadworks that no one has told them are about to take place. There is something about public transport that attracts the hyperbole, regardless of whether it is privately or publicly owned, that cars don't attract - probably it is that these affect many peoples day to day lives and unlike cars where it is an individual person in each vehicle the responsibility is with a faceless organisation who can be vilified more easily. Rail will get it worse because journalists & politicians actually use trains so these disruptions may actually, shock horror, have affected their journeys personally so they make a fuss.

    I would say that the railways as an industry actually have complete control over their right of way that the bus industry doesn't have on the roads. No one is legally allowed on the tracks without permission and due to our tighter safety regs almost all the tracks away from stations are fenced off controlling access. The train operators don't have control (& do receive a lot of the flak when things go wrong) but access to the tracks is much more tightly controlled by Network Rail (who is their supplier & has to pay the operators compensation when they cause issues - not something bus operators can claim under any circumstances) so they should have more influence over what happens.

    That said your point is still valid, media coverage about rail in particular (& public transport in general) is over the top & often inaccurate. In fact it was the reporting over the delivery of the South West Trains Desiros that destroyed my trust in the accuracy of newspapers when it was reported that Siemens had spent millions of pounds on plastic leaves & a man with a hammer smashing their test track so they could reflect UK track conditions when in reality the cost was in fitting 3rd rail powers supplies & British spec signalling to try (Fairly successfully it seems) to avoid the pitfalls of the previous train deliveries in getting approval over electrical interference with signalling systems (the plastic leaves was true but was because the trains were planned to be used on a line with a very steep gradient which ran through the South Downs National Park so they couldn't clear the trees so leaf fall was always an issue).

  3. Very good read Steve and certainly true!